In “Parents’ Evening” — the ninety-minute trifle currently premiering at the Flea Theatre — Judy (Julianne Nicholson) and Michael (James Waterston) are a young, upper-middle class couple (she’s a lawyer, he’s a struggling novelist) gearing up to meet with their ten-year-old daughter Jessica’s teacher on parent-teachers night. Well, Michael is gearing up — mentally, anyway — while Judy is anchored to their huge platform bed (the entire play is set in their bedroom) distractedly replying to Michael’s comments while poring through a ton of paperwork for an upcoming case. Little Jessica, it seems, has been causing some mischief at school — among other things, she has been passing a book among her friends that features teenagers having sex — and before too long Dad has begun to rant, Mom has abandoned her files, and they’re blaming each other for their daughter’s misbehavior.
By the time they return from the meeting at the start of the second act (they went off to it — finally! — at the end of the first), their parenting skills have been called into question, their devotion to each other is in doubt, and a social worker is due to visit them the following morning because Jessica, apparently, has told her teacher that Judy is not quite the ideal parent.
As the temperature in the room rises yet again — he accuses her of pandering to their daughter, when she pays any attention to her, at all; she accuses him of shouting at the child without reason, spanking her without restraint, of too often coming within one slap to the rump of being an “unfit Dad” — it becomes clear that not only do they have issues with their daughter, but also with each other. Thought-provoking questions bubble to the surface like lava: What IS excessive punishment when you’re disciplining your child? What DO you tell Child Welfare Services when they come knocking on your door the next day? Do you lie in order to keep the family intact (Michael is afraid that Jessica will be taken away from them), or do you tell the truth, “talk things out” as Judy puts it, and hope for the best?
Nicholson, as Judy, starts off slowly — chained to the bed for most of the first act, she has very little to do early on — but acquires some much-needed intensity in Act II, when you can see her anger, her hostility, her steely resolve.
Waterston, unfortunately, starts off lamely and — in the big second act showdown — mistakes histrionics for acting, shouting for emoting. We understand that he’s a yeller and a bit of a blowhard; playwright Bathsheba Doran hammers that home for a good part of the evening — but once he starts, there’s no respite from it, no change. He’s on the offensive, she’s on the defensive, and like a one-sided and ultimately boring boxing match, it goes on like that for far too long.
Bottom line: If you enjoy playing Peeping Tom, and watching married couples fight — over their child, over their affection for each other, over anything — then “Parents’ Evening” is the play for you.
Otherwise, this lackluster production — from the title on down — merits a “C” at most…on anyone’s report card.
THEATER REVIEW by Stuart R. Brynien